The landscape of science communication education is diverse and fast-evolving. The QUEST project has mapped the range of different training opportunities that currently exist across Europe.
Vaccines, climate change, GMO, pseudoscience: recently, several crises have increased awareness on the importance of the link between science and society, and raised a few questions on how to improve this relationship.
The first one is about “who”: which professional figure would fit this role at the best? Scientists or communication professionals, such as journalists and popularizers? Another key question is about the best approach to use, not only to inform, but also to involve and engage the public. Following the 5 Ws of journalism, one should also ask “where” and “when” it is more appropriate to communicate science, “what” should be the content of such communication and “why” one should do it.
All these points feed the current debate on science communication, in Europe and all over the world, showing that the issue is complex and multifaceted. It isn’t just a matter of an innate ability to simplify difficult themes such as scientific research. It is a crucial activity for making on the one hand science accepted, supported and even funded, and on the other for letting the society enjoy the best that science can provide. It is a wide subject, and it needs to be specifically taught.
Therefore, some universities where history or philosophy of science is studied, as well as some schools of journalism and other kinds of academic and research institutes, have over the last decades started courses of science communication. The landscape of these educational opportunities was mapped for the first time by a group of students from Rhein-Waal University Germany, who created a public online platform providing information about science communication degrees all over the world. Science Communication Finder includes an interactive map and a searchable database with useful information about each course. Unfortunately, the project has not been updated for the last few years.
Overview of training opportunities in Europe
This reflects the fact that one of the main characteristics of science communication education is its discontinuity: most initiatives emerge thanks to and around a single individual who champions the issue, and tend to vanish when he or she moves on. Project funding is also ephemeral, so that programmes can ‘pop up’ and vanish again because of staff changes, problems with recruiting students, or because an institution decided that the course was too expensive. So, what was mapped few years ago isn’t necessarily accurate anymore.
This is why within the QUEST project, continuing on that existing work, we started charting a new map of science communication education and training in Europe, taking into account for each course the level of teaching, its target and purpose, and its focus. (Scroll down for the interactive map, or click here to open it in a new window.)
We could therefore show that most European countries offer such activities and some, such as the UK, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Germany, where the first master’s degrees on the subject were initiated, are still those with the greatest number of courses.
While Science Communication Finder detected about 40 courses in 10 countries in Europe, we found 115 courses in 18 European countries. This can reflect different criteria in selecting courses, but also a growing interest in increasing their number in the last few years. However, some relevant courses, such as the one in Dumfries (UK), seem to have been discontinued.
As far as level is concerned, for the period of our analysis (summer-autumn 2019) most programmes (75) are at the master’s level: only three Universities, all of them in Germany, offer bachelor degrees (they were five in four countries in the Science Communication Finder analysis), and four (in Austria, Spain and UK) have formal PhD programmes in science communication (only one when Science Communication Finder was updated for the last time).
Some courses that were thought to be well consolidated were not active in the academic year 2019-2020, confirming the vulnerability of this discipline, divided among different departments and depending on the goodwill of a few people.
A diverse and broad field
Discontinuity is closely linked with diversity, offered within science communication training and education. Courses originate from different fields of research and diverse academic contexts, including natural science departments; education; sociology or philosophy faculties (Science and Technology Studies, STS); communication, media and journalism schools. This influences the background of teachers and the content of the courses, as well as the students targeted and career opportunities after the course. There is also a range of approaches taken to teaching, from more theoretical ones to courses that put more emphasis on practical work as part of course activities.
Though there are a few cases of training that are specifically oriented to science journalism or museum careers, most courses prepare students for a range of different jobs, including in mainstream and new media, museums, and media and public relations offices of universities or other research organisations. Some courses aim to prepare students for leadership and communication in the commercial medical sector, as well as public health policy, administration and regulation.
The target and purpose of each course has an impact on its duration, which commonly ranges from one day or a few weeks (particularly for working scientists) to full programmes at anything from a bachelor to PhD level for scholars, science journalists, and professional communicators. Most are face-to-face courses, but some institutions have also set up online and mixed programmes.
Tuitions are very different, also, ranging from free, such as in Germany, to very expensive, with some UK universities charging almost 30,000 euros for overseas students in full-time programs.in.
Finally, private companies are also an aspect of the training landscape. At least some science communication consultancies have noted the increasing need of communication skills and offer media training for scientists, as well as for pharmacological or technological industries. This sector is growing, and would merit an ad hoc analysis.
Science Communication Education in Europe: